Paul and Justine McMahon, care leavers

Justin and Kathleen McMahon live in Donaghmore. Their children, Paul and Justine, were Paul and Justine with their birth parents, Justin and Kathleen McMahonin foster care for approximately eight years as a result of their parents’ alcohol problems. Paul and Justine are now in their twenties and were reunited with their parents about 10 years ago. They tell their story:

Justin and Kathleen’s story:
“Justin and I have both struggled with alcohol problems in the past and our children were taken into foster care when Paul was seven and Justine was about two years old. At the time I was in total denial that we had a problem, however, I see now though that whoever reported us to social services actually did us a big favour. While we were sober there was no question of our ability to look after our children but it was the fact that both of us were often very drunk and there just was no one sensible to look after them,” says Kathleen.

Justin continues: “We had been to a few AA meetings but just couldn’t get over the compulsion to drink. We thought sure we’ll take a wee drink tonight and it’ll be OK – but it didn’t work out that way”.

“Social services were involved with us before Justine was born and it was sheer determination that kept me off alcohol during the pregnancy and for a few months after she was born. Social services stepped back a bit because things were going well but when Justine was two years old things slipped back again and both our children were taken off us. It was horrible… just heartbreaking,” says Kathleen. Justin says: “At the time our answer to that was, well, we’ll get the kids back but have a wee drink first. The drink seemed to mask the pain of the whole situation.”

“At the time I was so confused, there was a lot of shame and guilt and a lot of resentment to social services and foster carers. I was very afraid,” says Kathleen. “I mean I did love the children. It was an awful uphill struggle but there were times when I could see light at the end of the tunnel and then maybe after three months off the alcohol we would slip back again. Every time that happened I thought not only are we letting ourselves down and destroying our own hopes, but we were also afffecting the children badly” she continues.

“We couldn’t take the truth. It look a long time for us to be able to sit, accept that we had a problem and try to work with the people that were trying to help us instead of fighting against everything. It was only then that we did our best to get our children back,” says Kathleen.

She continues: “The last year the children were in care I knew it was now or never. I did a course in the Tech, I worked hard. We tried to get our home in order – Justin was working well. We had absolutely nothing when we finally stopped the drinking. No children, no phone, no jobs, no friends. We had to rebuild our lives from scratch. We had had no self respect and rebuilding our lives didn’t come back overnight – we had to work really hard to get all those things back. It took time for people to trust us again – for Justin to get work and be seen as reliable. But eventually it happened. I came to see whenever we started doing OK that Paul and Justine’s foster carers had always been 100% behind us and social services were brilliant. At no time, did either not want to see Paul and Justine home with us. When we got our acts together we saw social services and foster carers in a totally different light. They were more friends than the enemy we once thought they were.”

“The day kids came home was just magic. We knew we had hurt them so much and gave them lots of false hopes over the years. Justine and Paul are now in their early twenties. Justine lives with us and has her own hairdressing salon at our home. Paul is in the civil service and now lives in Belfast but visits us regularly. They are great kids,” says Kathleen.

Justin continues: “Paul and Justine are still very close to their last foster carers, whom they lived with for about four years. We are also friendly with them. We now realise what we’ve got and the mess our lives were in and our children’s lives. If it hadn’t been for social services and foster carers, God knows what would have happened our two children. We missed out on having them those years but we’ve done our best to fill that void. We have a great relationship with our children now. We’re very open with one another. Life’s not a bed of roses but we can cope with life now where we couldn’t before.”

Justine tells her story:
“I was two when I first came into foster care. I couldn’t understand what was happening at the time. You can imagine, a two year old being taken from her mummy and daddy – it was unreal. Paul and I were in foster care for about eight years in total – and moved to a number of foster homes over that time. It was great that Paul and I were able to stay together throughout – it would have been so much harder to cope alone. I’m so proud of my mum and dad for fighting to get us back and staying off the drink. It’s great to be home although our foster carers were so wonderful to us.”

Paul tells his story:
“I was seven when we first went into care. Although our parents weren’t always there for us they were still our parents – we loved them despite their flaws and we didn’t want to leave them. I just remember crying for days being taken from my parents – it was so, so hard. I was angry, fearful and resentful. We lived with our last foster carers for four years and they became everything to us. They helped us through so much. We felt safe and secure with them and they were alays there for us. They gave us opportunities we would never have had at home. Eventually when we did come home it was great – it is lovely to be a normal family again. Our parents proved to us that they could do it and it was thanks to our foster carers and social services that that we could become a family again. Our foster carers are just like a second family to us even now. They really helped us get to where we are today.”